South Sudan’s polling problems

Irregularities and administrative problems highlight difficulties facing 2011 referendum.

Sudan election


On April 11, Sudan’s historic elections began amidst excitement and fanfare.

By the time final results were announced on April 26, however, a string of boycotts, irregularities and allegations of fraud and intimidation marred the atmosphere. Significant delays in announcing results added to the suspicion and frustration.

As predicted, Omar al-Bashir, the incumbent president of the Republic of Sudan, secured his position with 68.4 percent of the vote.

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In the semi-autonomous south, Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) leader, Salva Kiir, won a second term as the president of the Government of South Sudan (GOSS) by a landslide margin of 92 per cent.

In the hours following the result announcements, heavily armed southern Sudanese police and military forces deployed throughout the southern capital of Juba in anticipation of violent clashes with frustrated opposition supporters.

“We do not feel that democracy has been done during these elections,” Godfrey Ladu said as he watched armoured personnel carriers move through a main street in Juba.

“The results will not satisfy the citizens of this country.”

SPLM dominates

“The majority of gubernatorial seats throughout the south went to candidates of the ruling SPLM, a party comprised largely of former southern rebels. Only in Western Equitoria, one of southern Sudan’s ten states, did a non-SPLM candidate win a gubernatorial position.

According to partial results, SPLM candidates won an overwhelming majority of parliamentary seats as well.

Many opposition candidates have rejected the outcome and announced plans to contest the results. Several non-SPLM candidates, including Kiir’s GOSS presidential opponent, Dr Lam Akol, have accused the SPLM of rigging the vote.

But SPLM supporters see the situation differently.

“The SPLM was voted in because we have kept the Comprehensive Peace Agreement on schedule and we have delivered services to the people,” Deng Dau Deng, a victorious SPLM candidate in Jonglei state, said.

The elections were the first to take place in this heavily divided country since 1986. For many in southern Sudan’s war-torn and impoverished south, the April elections were the first opportunity to ever cast a ballot.

“When elections brought Sadiq al-Mahdi in 1986, the south was at war and we were not able to vote,” Morris Aken explains outside a polling station in Juba.

“I am 45 years old and this is my first time to vote.”

Administrative challenges

Given the lack of experience in organising elections, logistical, technical and administrative challenges quickly arose during the election process.

Perhaps most notable throughout the south was the issue of voter registration discrepancies. Many registered voters complained that they were unable to find their names on registration lists at polling centres.

Voting in south Sudan [Pete Muller]

“I’ve arrived at this polling station before 8am and I still cannot find my name,” Edward Kasran, a Juba resident, said. “We want to do our national duty but we are being denied that right.”

The issue was compounded by southern Sudan’s staggering illiteracy rate of nearly 85 per cent.

“Most of the people cannot read and write,” 33-year-old Edwin Baba said as he waited to cast his vote in Juba.

“Finding their names is only the first challenge, then they have to vote,” he said. “Some people in remote areas have not even held a pen.”

Sudan’s voting process was regarded as one of the most complicated on record with northern voters casting eight separate ballots and southerners casting twelve.

Southern Sudan’s huge landmass and poor road system presented additional difficulties during polling.

“Some places in southern Sudan are very difficult to access,” Jersa Kide Barsaba, a member of the South Sudan High Committee for elections, said.

The inaccessibility of some areas prevented the distribution of adequate voting materials and impeded monitors. Likewise, southern Sudan’s underdeveloped roads complicated the process of collecting and tabulating results.

Intimidation and harassment

Both domestic and international observers reported incidents of intimidation and harassment of candidates, polling officials and observers during the election.

“It’s a big question of security personnel in the polling stations,” Edmund Berizilious, the co-ordinator of the Sudanese Network for Democratic Elections (SuNDE), a southern-based domestic monitoring group, said.

“In the context of the law it is supposed to be police only but unfortunately we come to realise that there are some security organisations in civil uniform and driving in cars with no number plates. These are the people who are harassing and arresting and detaining too much.”

Berizilous said that among the infractions were the arrest of 21 SuNDE observers and the abduction and beating of another.

On April 26, the US-based advocacy group, Human Rights Watch, issued a statement outlining instances of abuses during the election.

“The process was especially chaotic in the south, with serious irregularities reported in most states,” according to the organisation’s website.

Referendum ahead

Despite these shortcomings, some see the absence of large-scale violence as a major success.

“For most of us, the referendum is the ultimate election”

Edwin Baba, a Juba resident

“We are very happy that the elections and the announcement of the results have been mostly peaceful,” Berizilous said. 

In a place where violence remains a common response to disagreement, the so-far peaceful course of the elections indicates some level of progress.

“For the ordinary southern Sudanese, they can now see that they can bring change through the ballot and not with arms,” Edwin Baba, a Juba resident, said.

For many southerners, the April elections are a stepping-stone toward a referendum scheduled for 2011, during which southerners will decide whether or not to succeed from north.

“For most of us, the referendum is the ultimate election,” Baba said.

The referendum, like the elections, is mandated by the 2005 Comprehensive Peace agreement, which ended 20 years of war between the north and south. About two million people perished in the war and four million fled their homes.

“We must now turn our attention to the referendum,” Berizilious said. “There is a lot of work and negotiation to be done if we are to be prepared.”

Pete Muller is a photographer and multimedia reporter based in Juba, southern Sudan.

Source: Al Jazeera